insurance benefits

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

While the University often cites state law as a reason it cannot provide certain benefits to LGBTQ students and faculty, others say there are ways to circumvent these obstacles.

Mandatory diversity training, gender inclusive housing and same-sex insurance benefits are still not available on campus, much to the frustration of several organizations that have pushed LGBTQ legislation for years. Though LGBTQ-friendly legislation often garners significant student support, it is stopped one step short of implementation, at the UT System Board of Regents or at the Texas Legislature.

UT’s Queer Students Alliance successfully passed legislation through Student Government in support of gender-inclusive housing and same-sex insurance benefits in 2012, but SG resolutions do not have the power to enact change unless they are approved by the regents.

Currently, students are only allowed to live with peers of the same sex on campus, which can make students who identify as transgender uncomfortable, according to Marisa Kent, marketing sophomore and co-director of QSA. The Board of Regents have never approved any resolutions calling for gender-neutral housing, according to UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo. 

Hemlata Jhaveri, director of residence life for the Division of Housing and Food Services, said the division considered implementing a pilot program in Jester, but the floor plans in the residence halls made it impossible because residence halls have 35 to 55 students on one floor and usually have community bathrooms.

Jhaveri said universities that offer this housing do so through apartment style living because up to four students can live together with private bathrooms. 

The University has several apartments in its housing inventory, but none are located on campus. 

As efforts to change regent policy have stalled out, some UT faculty and staff have turned to the state legislature to lobby for LGBTQ-friendly legislation — also without much luck.

Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association, a university resource group established in 2006 to promote the interests of LGBTQ faculty and staff, has advocated University domestic partner benefits at each legislative session since 2009. Invest in Texas, a lobbying group established by SG and the Senate of College Councils, also includes domestic partner benefits in its platform. 

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, has introduced bills to allow Universities to offer domestic partner benefits for the last three legislative sessions and will push for the bill again in January. 

Naishtat said UT’s inability to offer domestic partner benefits means the University is less competitive when attracting and retaining top faculty and staff.

“This bill would help to ensure equity among married and nonmarried faculty and staff of the two systems and would demonstrate strongly that diversity is truly a value of the UT and Texas A&M systems,” Naishtat said. Shane Windmeyer, executive director and co-founder of the national nonprofit Campus Pride, said many universities are able to offer these benefits even when they are in states with constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, similar to Texas’ Defense of Marriage Act. This includes Michigan State University, the University of Florida and Ohio State University.

“Much of the work that happens in conservative areas has to happen under the radar or in partnership with state legislatures,” Windmeyer said.

Karen Landolt, one of the founders of the UT Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association, helped research peer institutions with domestic partner benefits and said she does not see a pattern between a university’s location and its ability to offer benefits.

“These are not liberal states where those benefits are happening,” Landolt said. “It’s just not happening at UT.”While this legislation for gender-inclusive housing and same-sex insurance benefits, QSA is currently writing student legislation that would require members of student organizations to go through mandatory diversity training, though this legislation would also require regent approval.

According to Kent, diversity training would educate students about the needs and experiences of different minority groups on campus, including students with disabilities and LGBTQ students.

Kent said she hopes the diversity training requirement will not encounter as much resistance on the path to approval as gender-neutral housing resolutions have experienced.

“I think that’s one of the most frustrating parts about this — we get the support of the student body, but once we send it to the Board of Regents, we see a lot of hesitation from them,” she said.

A student coalition met with four Texas senators and two Texas House representatives on Monday to raise the Longhorn voice at the Capitol.

Students from groups such as Student Government, the Senate of College Councils and the Graduate Student Assembly formed the Invest in Texas coalition, a group that will lobby for higher education issues such as opposing budget cuts to higher education, supporting competitive insurance benefits and gun control on campus.

Chelsea Adler, Senate of College Councils president, said she and students Jimmy Talarico and Daniel Spikes met with senators and representatives on Monday to talk about the coalition’s platform and gauge their responsiveness.
“The meetings today have gone really well. Everyone has been really receptive to our ideas,” said Alder, a government and social work senior.

The group’s main priority is to keep budget cuts to higher education proportionate to the total amount spent on higher education, she said. Gov. Rick Perry’s $182.3 billion two-year budget plan, which will last from Sept. 1, 2009 until Aug. 31, 2011, allots 12 percent of all spending to higher education, but in the last fiscal year higher education made up almost 42 percent of all budget cuts with a $75.5 billion deficit, she said. This session, the Legislative Budget Board, an agency that recommends potential cuts to state agencies, suggested a $93.2 million cut to UT, said University Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty.

The group will also lobby for competitive insurance benefits and work with other universities to gain the ability for public schools to choose their own individual safety policies, including the ability to choose to outlaw guns on campus, she said.

“This is such a pivotal time for our University, and we need as many students as we can to get involved with lobbying for these issues,” Adler said. “There’s lots of ways to get involved and make an impact, and the easiest one is lobbying.”

The coalition’s first lobbying day will be in March at the Capitol, she said.

Eventually, the group wants to work with other Texas schools and the rest of the UT System to gain the same benefits for all schools in the state, said Talarico, SG executive director and government senior.

“Students have seen the effects of budget cuts on our campus already with things like increased class sizes, entire programs cut, reduced facility hours and fees at the doctor’s office,” he said. “If we want to prevent that from happening again, students must become involved in the legislative process. These lawmakers are deciding the future of our campus.”

One of the group’s plans is to have members of its organizations send postcards to their hometown’s representatives explaining the Invest in Texas platform, Talarico said. Getting home districts on the side of the students is a good to reach out to the Capitol, said Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, who met with Adler, Talarico and Spikes.

“The Capitol has to hear your voice from all over the state before you really have an impact on these issues,” said Spikes, the legislative director of the Graduate Student Assembly and an educational administration graduate student.

UT violates its own anti-discrimination policy because of its failure to provide insurance benefits for same-sex partners of faculty and staff, a UT staffer said at a rally on Monday.

The Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association held signs bearing slogans such as “Gays are family members, too,” “Value all Longhorn families” and “Fall in love with equality” to promote competitive insurance benefits including coverage for same-sex partners for UT faculty and staff.

Students, faculty and staff members spoke before the group of about 60 as they marched to the North Office Building A where faculty and staff attempted to fill out insurance forms for
their partners.

Lindsey Schell, women’s studies librarian and chair of the association’s competitive insurance benefits committee, said the demonstration was meant to point out flaws in the system. Twenty-three faculty and staff members signed up to fill out forms prior to the rally, she said.

All private colleges in Texas including Rice University, Southern Methodist University, Trinity University and Baylor College of Medicine offer competitive insurance benefits for their employees, Schell said.

“It’s very telling that even a school as conservative as Baylor recognizes that in order to keep their medical and dental schools competitive, they need to offer these kinds of benefits,” she said.

The association held a rally in fall 2008 with roughly the same turnout and success but no results, Schell said. UT must begin offering these kinds of benefits to retain GLBT faculty and staff members and keep the competitive edge required of the UT and Texas A&M University systems by state law, she said.

“The real travesty here is that we’re still having rallies about this in 2011,” she said. “With so many factors keeping people from health care, homophobia shouldn’t be one of them.”

UT has to go through the UT System and chancellor to make changes, said Julien Carter, associate vice president for Human Resource Services. After working with system attorneys, UT officials determined the University did not have the authority to offer competitive insurance benefits based on Texas’s Insurance Code, which defines a spouse as a member of the opposite sex, he said.

“This was many, many years ago. Finding authority or changing the interpretation of authority would be helpful with the UT system’s reputation as an employer,” he said. “It’s also a competitiveness issue. I do hope at some point, authority might be provided.”

A small group — formed by President William Powers Jr. that includes Schell and Student Government President Scott Parks — has been working with human resources on other benefits such as leave benefits for GLBT faculty and staff, Carter said.

The loss of queer faculty and staff and the discriminatory campus atmosphere caused by our current policies have huge impacts on student life, Parks said.

“Many people think that this isn’t a student issue because it only applies to faculty and staff,” he said. “I think that’s a narrow way to look at this problem. When our queer faculty and staff are not treated fairly, that sends a signal to everyone, even our queer students, that this is not a safe place to flourish and live proudly, and that’s a huge problem.”

A university such as UT should award domestic partner benefits to staff and faculty, said Sarah Carswell, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 2007 and earned her master’s at UT’s School of Social Work.

“I would actually argue that we should have plus one benefits for all faculty, staff and students on campus,” she said, “But what I’m really fighting for is a more democratically run university, and I think that’s true for a lot of other folks here as well.”